Thursday, November 10, 2016

10 November 2016

This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.” Jeremiah 29:10-14 (NLT)

Good afternoon, welcome. Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of pulling a verse or two out of context, particularly Old Testament verses and especially verses from the Prophets, to make a point, although I have done it from time to time. There are several technical terms for this, and they basically have to do with things like taking selective portions out of context and giving them personal or modern applications they were never meant to have.[1] 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a classic example: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land”. This promise was given to a specific person-Solomon-at a specific time-the dedication of the Temple-for a specific nation-Israel-in response to a specific condition-“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people…” (v.13). Does this mean it is bad to pray for your nation? Of course not. But the fact remains-the promise was given to Solomon for Israel sometime between 971-931 BCE, not to the United States in 2016.

That being said, since some of us may be feeling like we have just been sent into exile (and others of us, as if we have just been returned), I think our Jeremiah passage does have something to say to us today. First, let’s take a quick look at what it said to the original hearers.

Some false prophets had been telling the exiles in Babylon their situation was temporary and they would soon be returning home to Israel. God’s word to them-as we discussed yesterday-spoken through Jeremiah was something like this: “Don’t listen to them. I have not abandoned you but you won’t be returning any time soon either. Get comfortable, settle in, you’re in it for the long haul”. And then He promises restoration and blessing, words of comfort. We can, I think, without stretching things too far, infer from this that God had the Israelites best interests at heart. After all, our redemption-the ultimate in future hope and blessing-would come from them. While God may not have had a specific, individual plan for each specific individual Israelite, He did have specific plans for the exiles (and the nation) as a group, and He gave the group instructions for what He expected from individual members.

Fast forward to today. A very popular buzz phrase in evangelical circles for a while now has been ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’; taken, I think, from 29:11. Well, God does indeed have a wonderful plan for all of us: our redemption-accomplished once for all on the cross, and our restoration-the continuing process of developing Christ-like character in us. Plans to do us good, plans for a future and a hope; a here and now hope as well as a future hope. The other part of that plan-which I have emphasized here, over and over and over-is simply to be Christ’s presence wherever we are. Which is why forming Christ-like character is so important in the first place. As far as specific, individual plans go, well, that is something a little different.

Which leads me to calling. Briefly put, some of us are called to something specific-some ministry, for example, or the medical field, or teaching. In this case a specific calling leads to a career, more or less. For others of us, things aren’t so clear. There may be any number of things we could do which would be perfectly acceptable to God and which would also make us happy (and possibly lead to a career as well). We can do these things and still function within our primary calling-to be Christ’s presence.

And that leads, in a roundabout sort of way, back to my main point. Being the presence of Christ means being called to be a blessing to those around us. We can be a blessing regardless of what our career (or job, if you prefer) is. We can be a blessing regardless of who we are around (including being around those we consider to be enemies, or consider us their enemies). God’s “…plans for good and not for disaster, to give…a future and a hope” may well involve us in the giving. They may, in a sense, depend upon us for the giving.
So, here’s the assignment for the days and weeks ahead. Spend some time with God discussing how you might be able to recognize those times when you can be a blessing to someone (as opposed to being a curse, which has been going on far too long). Remember, He also promised the exiles”If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you…” (Vs.13-14; cf. Matthew 7:7-8). And that is a promise for all the ages.
May the Lord bless you and keep you this day. JRG

[1] For a list of these terms, with definitions, along with guidelines for interpreting the Old Testament, see Fee & Stuart; How to Read The Bible for All Its Worth, third edition (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2003) p. 103-105

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

9 November 2016
Jeremiah 29:1-14

Good afternoon, welcome. Today’s passage is a letter written by Jeremiah to the Israelites in exile in Babylon. Israel as a nation had consistently failed its God-given mission. The idea was that, by being faithful to obey God’s laws, Israel would demonstrate to the surrounding nations how God intended for His children to live. God would then bless them, demonstrating His power and steadfast love. The nations themselves would then turn to Him and be saved. Israel of course did not do this; consequently God raised up pagan nations against them to deliver His judgement. First the Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria; next Judah fell to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Jeremiah, writing from Jerusalem, is telling the exiles what God expects from them while they are away.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. (Jeremiah 29:4-7; NRSV)
There is a sense in which this exile is a second chance for Israel; a new opportunity to demonstrate how God expects His people to live. False prophets are telling the people this is merely a temporary situation; a minor setback. Jeremiah says no, plan on being there a while. You will have to adjust to your new situation; here is what I expect-build houses, start families, plant gardens, multiply as you did in Egypt. Do not whine and complain; make a home here. Jeremiah reminds them God will be with them in exile: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you” (v.12). More than that-as if that weren’t enough-God promises restoration: “I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes…” (v.14).

But before He makes those promises, He gives an unusual word of instruction: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (vs.7). Babylon had been God’s chosen agent of punishment against Israel; now God is instructing His people to pray for their oppressor’s safety and well-being. He is, in effect, telling the Israelites to “…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28; cf. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

This is what I want us to see today. God is saying to His captive children ‘settle in, live your lives, demonstrate my presence, pray for your cities’. This past election cycle has been brutal for everyone. Many Christians on the losing side are feeling betrayed and fearful over what changes may be coming for us as a nation. I believe God’s words to them-to us-are the same words He spoke to the exiles centuries ago. Settle in, live your lives, demonstrate my presence, pray for your government (and your enemies) at all levels.

Brothers and sisters, now is not the time to be afraid. Now is the time to rise up and be the Church, to demonstrate our Lord’s presence. Our salvation does not depend upon our political system and the Gospel will not be spread by it either. It is time for all of us to “Work hard to show the results of [our] salvation” (Philippians 2:12; NLT). Love will always trump hate. Let it begin with us. JRG

Thursday, November 3, 2016

3 November 2016

Good afternoon, welcome. We have finally visited all seven churches. While each church had a specific message, each message was also intended for all churches past and present. Taken as a whole, there is a progression of falling away just as relevant today as when John had his visions. Loss of love for Christ opens the door to questionable doctrinal practice. Once doctrine becomes corrupt discernment is lost, resulting in immorality and dead works.

Love for Jesus and for His church-our brothers and sisters throughout the world-is the foundation upon which everything is built. Love is important enough for Paul to devote one whole chapter-1 Corinthians 13-to it. John himself emphasizes love in 1 John; the word occurs some 24 times there. Without love doctrine runs the risk of becoming just another set of soul-killing rules and regulations.

They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me John 14:21-24 (NRSV)
Obviously, love for God is more than just some sentimental feeling. Jesus clearly equates love with obedience. But look at the promise-we will come to them and make our home with them. Now consider the promises of our Lord to His seven churches. Eternal life, a new name, Jesus Himself, a permanent place with and knowledge of God, intimate fellowship. Paul writes “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (NRSV). The taste of fellowship in John 14:21-24 becomes a full-fledged banquet in Revelation. I have said this before but it bears repeating-if we do not learn to enjoy God here and now, how can we expect to enjoy Him for eternity? Study of scripture and the spiritual disciplines are relevant and necessary but only to the extent that they allow us to experience and be transformed by the perfect love that is our Triune God. Anything else is self-serving and self-defeating.

One final point. Jesus rebukes five of the seven churches. Rebukes, but not condemns or discards. Even the Thyatira prophetess Jezebel is given time to repent. All of us have and will continue to think, do and say things we will need to confess and repent of. When we do God welcomes us with open arms; it is incumbent upon us to do the same for our brothers and sister. Consider these words from the prophet Ezekiel “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live” Ezekiel 18:31-32 (NRSV) and” Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die…” (33:11; NRSV). Words spoken to Israel to be sure, but what they say about God has eternal significance. Consider too Peter’s words in 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” My point is this-in our eagerness to judge and condemn anyone who thinks or believes or acts or looks differently from us, we “…may even be found fighting against God” Acts 5:39 (NRSV).

Listen to what Jesus says to His church. Remember. Repent. Return.

May the Lord bless you
and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor
and give you his peace.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

2 November 2016
Revelation 3:14-22
Good morning, welcome. Today we visit Laodicea, the last of the seven churches. Laodicea was a wealthy city close to Colossae; Paul mentions Laodicea in his letter to the Colossians. Laodicea was a wealthy, independent city known for the manufacture of a very soft wool; it was also a major medical center noted for its eye salve. Leveled by an earthquake in 61 A.D., Laodicea refused Roman assistance and was able to rebuild with its own resources.

The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation (3:14)
These words echo Colossians 1:15-20. Jesus is the last Word (the words of the Word), faithfully and accurately representing God to humanity. Everything has its beginning and finds its meaning in Him.

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. (3:15)
There may be a bit of a double meaning here. The Laodicea church is neither refreshing nor soothing. In ancient times, however, cold and hot often referred to for and against. This church had taken a middle ground approach, attempting to worship both God and emperor without committing fully to either.

For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. (17-19)
Consider the contrasts-wealthy vs. bankrupt; clothed in fine woolens vs. naked; healthy vs. blind. What a difference a point of view makes. Gold, white robes, eye salve giving true vision are not things which can be purchased-they are gifts freely given by our Lord.

I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (19-21)
Once again, an earnest call to repent. Even though our Lord had nothing good to say here, He does not give up on His church. The invitation stands-open the door, let me in. Although often depicted as a call to individuals, this invitation is to the church. Jesus walks among all His churches; He seems to have been excluded from this one. He does not force His way in; rather He remains outside, waiting to be invited. The promise to eat together implies fellowship-day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute fellowship. The church-the worldwide church-is Jesus’ presence on earth and He desires to be present in and among her.

To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne (3:21)
Fellowship in the present has its reward in the future. This church may be wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked, yet here they are being promised a place on the throne of Christ. Our Lord sees what we are; He also sees what we can become. He is not comfortable in the role of idle spectator; rather, He longs to be an active participant in our lives, so that we may become an active participant in His.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. JRG

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

1 November 2016

Revelation 3:7-13

Good morning, welcome. Today being All Saints Day, it seems somewhat fitting that we are visiting Philadelphia, the Church of the Open Door. Nothing to condemn here; only words of commendation and encouragement.

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:
“I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
The message to Philadelphia contrasts power with opportunity. Opportunity comes from our Lord, who, as the holy and true one, the last Davidic King, alone has the authority, and the power. This message is well worth remembering today, especially in this country where, all too often, power is pursued in a more secular manner resulting in loss of moral authority. The open door itself may refer to missionary work, to entrance into God’s eternal Kingdom, or both, with the first leading to the second. Any evangelistic endeavor must be grounded in the Gospel of Christ; in the Kingdom of God power is not the point. Jesus is.

I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying—I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.
This is an important verse. The synagogue of Satan appears in Smyrna and Philadelphia and does not necessarily imply Satanic worship; rather it describes Jews who, believing they are worshiping and serving God, are in fact persecuting Him by persecuting His church (cf. Acts 22:7-8), thus doing Satan’s work for him. These Jews thought they were doing God a service, yet they did not recognize Him when He came. We must be careful not to make the same mistake today. Anyone who persecutes God’s people-and His church-wherever they are found is doing the work of the Accuser and will be held accountable. The point here is this-before you persecute someone for who they are or what they believe, think about to whom they may belong.

Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. Revelation. (10-11)
The phrase ‘keep you from’ could mean the church will be present but protected during the time of trial, or that it will be removed before the time of trial. Protected during seems to me to be more consistent with the general message of the New Testament, and with the mission of the church to be a faithful witness to our Lord. What do you think? Why?

If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. (12-13)
Pillar implies a permanent place in God’s presence. The reward for faithful endurance is knowing God now, and a permanent place with God in His new city. Once again we see-what we do here and now matters for eternity. Those throughout the ages who persevere will know God and they will know where He lives and they will be with Him there. Those who reject Him will not. Many today invest and plan for retirement in the hope that they will be able to live comfortably when their working days are over. There is a spiritual parallel here-those who invest their lives in God’s Kingdom on earth will in rest in God’s Kingdom-and enjoy His presence-for eternity.

May the Lord Himself bless, strengthen and keep you this day. JRG